ST. GABRIEL — Brenda York learned from her doctor in December that she has a respiratory illness known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. One street away, her neighbor, Geraldine Refuge, has dealt with various breathing ailments for years.
Both women say they are convinced their afflictions were brought on by the chemicals released from a plant that processes spent carbon. The company that operates the facility, Adsorbent Solutions, is seeking to expand in St. Gabriel.
York, Refuge and a band of their neighbors are waging a vigorous battle to block the expansion plans. They are trying to convince state and local leaders not to grant regulatory and zoning approvals required for the project to move forward.
"We really don't want this," Refuge said. "It's not helping us. They're destroying us. It stinks all the time over here because of them."
York added, "We've been aware of the horrible smells for a while, but we're just now finding out how harmful the chemicals they're dealing with are."
Adsorbent’s president, Stewart Fulton, claims the expansion would allow the company to upgrade its facility in the 7100 block of St. Gabriel Avenue with the latest technology to improve public safety and its environmental responsibility to the surrounding community.
"There is a tremendous amount of misinformation being put out there," Fulton said. "We're one of the problem solvers, not the problem creators."
Fulton feels his company is being unfairly blamed for the foul odors that permeate in a community that is home to a number of chemical plants and industrial facilities.
"St. Gabriel is surrounded by a lot of plants, and we're a lot smaller than most of them," he said.
St. Gabriel's City Council is set to hear arguments from both sides next month during a public hearing on Adsorbent's zoning and variance requests.
The dispute has drawn the attention of retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, leader of the Green Army coalition of environmental groups in Louisiana.
Honoré said his organization is currently doing a health survey of the community.
"We're going to stand with them until the end," he said. "These people deserve a break."
In describing the daily operation of the St. Gabriel facility, Fulton said that Adsorbent reduces the amount of chemical pollutants released into the environment by using a thermal oxidizer to destroy harmful contaminants in spent carbon before it is released into the atmosphere.
Adsorbent Solutions, which opened its facility in St. Gabriel in 2008, has asked the city to rezone the property where its facility is located from business industrial to light industrial. In its request, the company has also asked the city for a variance allowing it to expand the size of the St. Gabriel facility without having to acquire additional acreage the city usually mandates for industrial plants.
The expansion plans also require approval of an air permit modification from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
According to LDEQ, the expansion would increase the annual emissions of sulfur dioxide, fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide, while reducing volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides the facility releases during its daily operation.
A public hearing for LDEQ permit modification was held March 7 and more than 70 residents attended, voicing staunch opposition to Adsorbent's plans.
The residents came armed with knowledge of the company's ongoing legal issues with LDEQ. In April 2015, state regulators threatened to fine Adsorbent for allegedly ignoring compliance mandates dating as far back as 2013.
Among other problems, LDEQ claimed that Adsorbent had improperly disposed of solid waste and/or reactivated carbon at its facility into the surrounding community and nearby waterways.
Fulton claimed the company has resolved most of the past compliance issues from LDEQ. However, that could not be confirmed with state officials. LDEQ spokesman Greg Langley said he could not comment on the issue because it’s an ongoing matter.
"That will be soon be settled," Langley said.
As for the LDEQ permit request, Langley said Adsorbent won't get an answer until the agency responds to the stack of comments citizens submitted at the March 7 public hearing.
"I can't give you a date on when we will render a decision," he said. "Apparently there are a lot of comments and they have to answer them all."
St. Gabriel's Planning and Zoning Committee has already voted unanimously in September to reject Adsorbent's rezoning and variance requests. The matter was set to go to a vote for the City Council in October, but Adsorbent officials had it pulled from the meeting’s agenda.
Since then, the requests have been in limbo at the council level after being tabled several times. They were re-introduced at a council meeting on March 9, with a public hearing set for 5:30 p.m. on April 20.
Eugene Willis, who lives less than a quarter of a mile from the facility, said he fears city leaders keep stalling their vote on the item because they're trying to approve the request behind the public's back.
"When we show up, they table everything," he said. "And the first time we're not there, they'll pass it."
Mayor Lionel Johnson said he understands the concern but denies Willis' assertion.
He would not comment on any speculations regarding council members' position on the request.
But he added, "I'm all for businesses that are good community partners, that obey the laws and are transparent. A lot of what has gone on and the offenses are so egregious, I don't see why anyone would want to support them."